Academic papers: How to clean up your story

macbook pro

I’m a nature lover, and I try to generate as little waste as possible. (If you haven’t read Zero Waste Home, do it!). I lurk in a zero waste Facebook group in which someone recently shared a link to this academic paper: “Limitations of the waste hierarchy for achieving absolute reductions in material throughput”, published in the Journal of Clean Production.

An academic analysis of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra? I licked my chops and clicked through.

I barely made it to the end of the abstract. The authors seemed to have conjured up as many syllables as they could glean from the dictionary, and the sentence structure made me think of Hogwarts’ Whomping Willow. My brain was whomped.

Consider the reader

This is unfair to readers, even if they are also academics. We’re all busy and have brain networks that are easily overburdened. There is always a simple way to express even the most complex concept; if you want to engage your readers, you need to find it.

To show you how I can turn heavy academic language into something readable – without losing accuracy, of course – I’ve done a spot of translating.

Read my version first:

Dematerialization is a straightforward sustainable strategy that is easy to measure. It involves reducing inputs of raw materials and outputs of waste. The priorities of waste management generally follow a hierarchy that ranges from waste prevention at the top to landfill at the bottom. But does applying this hierarchy actually help our economy dematerialize? This paper analyses the original aims of the waste hierarchy, its potential, and how it is implemented in policy.

This is the original excerpt:

Dematerialization can serve as a measurable and straightforward strategy for sustainability and requires changes in management of material inputs and waste outputs of the economy. Currently, waste management is strongly inspired by the waste hierarchy, an influential philosophy in waste and resource management that prioritizes practices ranging from waste prevention to landfill. Despite the inclusion and prioritization of prevention in the hierarchy, the positive contribution of the application of the waste hierarchy to dematerializing the economy is not inevitable, nor has it been conclusively studied.  In this paper, the waste hierarchy is analyzed on a conceptual level by studying its original aims, its potential to fulfill those aims, and its actual policy implementation.

Sucked into the system

Having spent many years at university myself, I know how this happens. You constantly read complex, syllable-heavy sentences. You consciously or subconsciously mimic your supervisors, mentors and gurus. Before you know it, that’s how you write, too. And you even feel a little bit proud of it.

But in the words of Stephen King: “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”

Your paper is a story of discovery. You should tell it well to your readers.

I can help.

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